Award-winning Design+Build Collaborative project covered on television, web

Ten students from Norwich University’s Design+Build Collaborative had already earned accolades from the American Institute of Architects, both the Vermont and New England chapters, for the NEST outdoor classroom/playhouse. In October, three Vermont broadcast news stations shined a spotlight. A Vermont news website joined the coverage just before Thanksgiving.

With COVID-19 changing the way lessons are taught, outdoor classrooms like NEST have become increasingly important.

In October, the American Institute of Architects’ New England chapter bestowed a Merit Award for designing and building NEST, which was part of playground renovations at Montpelier’s Union Elementary School. It emerged from 163 entries to earn the award.

NEST, designed in 2018, aimed to transform an aging playground into a space for physical exploration, imaginative play and experiential learning.

The project received a Citation Award from the American Institute of Architects’ Vermont chapter in December 2019.

Tolya Stonorov, an associate professor of architecture, led the undergraduate design-build studio.

NEST, designed and built over 15 weeks in 2018, aimed to transform an aging playground into a space for physical exploration, imaginative play and experiential learning. The project incorporated a variety of learning spaces into its design; it could, for example, accommodate science lessons on crop cultivation. 

The NEST studio actively engaged with the broader community. Parents, students and teachers consulted in the project, which was built with majority Vermont-sourced child- and environmentally friendly materials. It opened in August 2019.

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Tolya Stonorov, an associate professor of architecture at Norwich University, describes the NEST outdoor classroom/playhouse project in October on Burlington, Vermont, television station WVNY-TV/WFFF-TV, Channel 22/44. (Screenshot from WVNY-TV/WFFF-TV/mychamplainvalley.com.)

On Oct. 22, WCAX-TV, Channel 3, Burlington, Vermont’s CBS television affiliate, sent reporter Scott Fleishman to NEST to speak with Stonorov and 2018 architecture graduate Whitney Bachelder.

“These students were stellar; they pushed the boundaries of their design thinking and then followed it through,” Stonorov said on air. “They (developed) ideas born from working with the students in the elementary school — hearing their vision, translating those ideas and distilling them (into the final design).”

Favorite elements

Bachelder showed favorite NEST elements, a helix wall that took shape with hands-on construction and a board of large movable pegs. By helping to paint the pegs in bright blues, yellows and reds, the Union Elementary School students took pride in helping complete the project, she said.

WVNY-TV/WFFF-TV, Channel 22/44, a Burlington Fox affiliate, aired a segment on its Oct. 19 morning show. Reporter Libbi Farrow interviewed Stonorov, Bachelder and Union Elementary School Principal Ryan Heraty.

Bachelder said four of students in the NEST studio led a  workshop in an elementary school art class, and solicited ideas for the playhouse.  

“They drew us really elaborate pictures,” she said.

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2018 Norwich University architecture graduate Whitney Bachelder discusses the NEST outdoor classroom/playhouse on WCAX-TV, Channel 3, in October. (Screenshot from video, WCAX-TV.)

Heraty said NEST gives students a place to read and relax or climb and play.

“I think for them it resembles the childhood dream of a treehouse,” Heraty added.

WPTZ-TV, Channel 5, an NBC affiliate, posted a text story about the project last month. And on Nov. 21, the VTDigger website added its own story.

“Based on the research, we know it’s safer for us to be outside,” Stonorov told VTDigger. “And we know that kids interacting with the outdoors is tremendously important to their education. Now it’s important to their lives.”

NEST, an Americans With Disabilities Act-accessible structure, was built with hemlock and white cedar lumber from Fontaine Mills in East Montpelier and Goodridge Lumber in Albany, Vermont and sealed with Vermont Natural Coatings made in Hardwick, Vermont. Chris Temple and Kenneth Bushey from De Wolfe Engineering Associates worked pro bono on the engineering of the project.

National trend

For months, national news reports have chronicled schools moving lessons outdoors. The New York Times in October described outdoor class setups in New York City; Falmouth, Massachusetts; Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Pewaukee, Wisconsin. CNN this week aired a story describing outdoor classrooms experiences reinvigorating learning for students in Colorado.

In Vermont, the move-classes-outside push gained traction when weather was warm. In August, WCAX described a timber frame outdoor classroom Thetford Academy in Thetford, Vermont, built a couple of years ago that gained use during the pandemic. Also in August, VTDigger reported that the White River Valley School in Bethel, Vermont, planned to learn in outdoor classrooms through the Thanksgiving break.

In May, a coalition of San Francisco Bay Area outdoor education advocates launched the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative to improve learning by using an affordable, outdoor approach. Founding members were the Berkeley-based nonprofit Green Schoolyards of America, the University of California; Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science; the San Mateo (California) County Office of Education; and Ten Strands, a San Francisco nonprofit boosting environmental literacy.

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A Norwich University student talks with students from Montpelier’s Union Elementary School during the completion of the NEST outdoor classroom/playhouse project in summer 2019. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

On its website, Green Schoolyards of America said the initiative holds biweekly Zoom meetings to let school officials talk strategy. Fast Company magazine reported that initiative’s first Zoom meeting in June attracted more than 1,000 people from 40 states and eight countries.

Through the initiative, the magazine added, 10 working groups of volunteers are studying funding, safety and infrastructure to move classes outdoors.

“We’re trying to reframe the way schools are thinking about their return and redefine what they consider to be plan A,” Green Schoolyards of America founder Sharon Danks told Fast Company. “So, if plan A is outside, then you can fall back on the other things when you need it.”

Inviting designs

Norwich’s School of Architecture+Art has taken the learn-outdoors theme a step further, launching a global contest for high school students to design an outdoor classroom for scholarship dollars toward a Norwich design-build education.

The competition, open to all high school students, launched Nov. 4; the submissions deadline is Dec. 13. Students may register and compete as individuals or in teams of up to four members.

Under the contest parameters, the classrooms should be no bigger than 20 feet wide by 20 feet deep by 20 feet tall or no bigger than a 400-square-foot footprint by 20 feet tall. The classroom should also be specific to the grounds of a school in the entrant’s or entering team’s town.

All entries will receive ideas and suggestions from Norwich University School of Architecture+Art faculty, who will also advise and guide registered competitors. Click here for all details on the design parameters and submission guidelines.

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